XAM’D (Anime)

Title: XAM’D

Episodes: 1-26 (complete)

Akiyuki lives on Senton Island, a free zone between the warring North and South. When his decision to help a girl leads to a terrorist attack, he ends up infected by a biological agent that turns him into a living weapon. Now he’s effectively exiled from his home, as the military there has a lot of interest in what he’s become. With the help of another girl, Nakiami, Akiyuki is learning to live with his new condition. But will he master it, or will it master him?

This is another random older show I’d never heard of until just recently, and which the reviews were rather negative towards. And once again, I found I enjoyed it for the most part.

I like shapeshifters, so the situation with Akiyuki’s infection was one of the high points for me. In his case, actually shifting (even if it’s only a partial shift like his arm) brings with it a host of consequences, the most dangerous being that the new form is fundamentally unstable and has a tendency to turn to stone if he’s not managing it right. So messing up will kill him, which makes learning how to live with it, at least at first, a matter of learning how NOT to use it unless he absolutely has no choice.

I wish the show had done more to dig into some of the emotional issues with being turned into a weapon, but on the other hand you can tell a lot from his actions. He isn’t at all grateful to be “rescued” at first, since it involved removing him from his home, friends, and family. And getting back isn’t easy, because the military man in charge of the island at best wants to catch him to use as a test subject (and failing that, would be happy to have him killed).

Nakiami isn’t exactly Akiyuki’s love interest, which I liked. She’s mysterious, almost suicidally determined to rescue others, and uniquely competent in dealing with the humanform weapons. Although she’s traveling with a group, it’s also clear something holds her apart. And she’s a mean glider pilot (they called them kayaks in the dub but that always makes me think of boats).

There are a number of other threads that get a lot of attention throughout. I think my favorite was the ongoing really tenuous relationship between Akiyuki’s mom and dad, who are separated but not quite divorced. Akiyuki’s disappearance impacts both of them badly, as no one has any idea if he’s alive or dead, but it’s clear the two of them have enough pride and pain that even this isn’t enough to cause them to unbend more than a little. Both of them seem to regret being apart, and willing to come back together—but not willing to address the things that drove them apart in the first place, which pretty well dooms most of his dad’s attempts at reconciliation.

Another major thread is the friendship between Akiyuki, Haru, and Furuichi. That didn’t go at all the way I expected—some of the problems that were visible early on resolved opposite what I thought they would be, like Haru’s love interest. I like the way the dynamics played out, and how things that could have been little things if they’d all been together, if they’d all grown up normally, became in the end such a disaster.

On a technical level, the animation was pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing all the little details that were actually animated. This is a good-looking show, even when it’s going for more of a body-horror vibe (seriously, go look up the way Akiyuki actually transforms. He’s basically melting into a new shape that you can at best describe as humanoid).

I watched the show in dub, and in general that was a strong performance. There were a few minor characters who only had a handful of lines that sounded weird, but the major characters sounded good.

There were a few things that brought the presentation down a bit, though. I watched the show in dub, so I’m not sure if this is also true for the sub, but there were several points where the background music was loud enough to overwhelm the characters speaking, and I had to turn the volume up to try to pick out what they were saying. (I don’t know that this would matter as much for sub anyway, since I’d have the text.) I also really wasn’t fond of that long poem about enemies that gets repeated three or four times in full. It feels like an overly convoluted way to try to express a few ideas, and could have been done with a much shorter presentation.

The series does dip a bit in the middle when it chooses to shift the focus away from Akiyuki, who is mostly out of commission for several episodes, in favor of developing a lot of the more secondary characters. At this point, I feel it would’ve been stronger to focus more on Nakiami, or some other more action-driven character, instead of spending so much time with the crew of the postal ship. And there are several decisions at the end that baffle me. Why do that with Akiyuki, after everything is over? And then take that long to change your mind?

Despite the snags, though, I did enjoy watching this, and am glad I stumbled across it. I rate this show Recommended.


Very Truly Run After (Travels with Michael #2)

Title: Very Truly Run After

Author: William Duquette

Series: Travels with Michael #2

Michael has gotten married, and more or less gotten used to his abilities as a Traveler who can cross between parallel worlds. Unfortunately, he’s now attracting increasing numbers of other Travelers who presumably want his growing collection of finders. Thankfully, most Travelers aren’t very good assassins . . .

This is a very different book from the first, but equally funny. Most of this is because Michael spends a great deal of time in a parallel regency steampunk world. It’s a world where everyone dresses smartly, holds to a strict set of manners, and is “packing more heat than a summer day in Las Vegas.”

Yes, that’s right. Regency steampunk with lots and lots of guns. Gwen has a derringer and is considered basically unarmed.

Mostly this is because the local wildlife is oversized and deadly, but it certainly made a refreshing read after the nonsense I read last week.

Michael end up there somewhat by accident, but given the number of people after him, he concludes it’s a good idea to recuperate in a place where his assailants have to go through an armed populace that does NOT take kindly to assassins.

Of course there’s plenty of “regency” in the plot there, too. One of the more amusing segments is Michael discovering just what that term entails when his wife provides several books as research on the subject. And then watching a similarly convoluted dramatic plot working out in the lives of those he’s become acquainted with. Also fun is that Michael honestly can’t be sure what’s exaggerated and what’s not when he’s trying to read about life in the colonies, so he more or less has to take it all as truth.

I also appreciated this is the only steampunk novel I have read that does not go on and on about dirty smoke. Whatever they’re using with their aetheric contraptions, it isn’t dirty like actual steam (which is one reason Michael can’t figure out how any of it works).

All in all, this advances some interesting threads on the main mystery of Michael’s family and powers, and also provides a host of new and fun characters. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Vikings at Dino’s: A Novel of Lunch and Mayhem (Travels with Michael #1)

Title: Vikings at Dino’s: A Novel of Lunch and Mayhem

Author: William Duquette

Series: Travels with Michael #1

Michael just wants to eat lunch in peace. But when every attempt to go out to his favorite diners is met by pillaging Vikings, it’s hard to see lunch as a break. Between Vikings, Mongol hordes and a Roman legion, his small town is getting way too interesting . . .

This was AMAZING. Michael is a software designer who works from home and likes to indulge in going out for lunch. But soon that turns into an absurdist nightmare as various inexplicable raiders show up to loot and pillage those establishments. Michael has no interest in getting caught up with any of this, but he can’t seem to escape always being in the middle of things.

Basically, go read the sample on Amazon. The first chapter lays everything out beautifully. I love this kind of surreal comedy, where the events playing out could almost be a dream except real people are stuck trying to deal with the consequences.

And the rest of the book is just as funny, with unexpected bouts of seriousness (well, people ARE in real danger).

It was also interesting because Michael has a condition where he stopped growing at ten years old, so he has the body of a child and people tend to treat him that way. It’s soured his view on a number of things. Being an “eternal child” isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It does, however, make for some really funny scenes.

Overall, this was highly entertaining, and absolutely one I will read again. I rate this Highly Recommended.

Call of the Flame (Knights of the Flaming Blade #1)

Title: Call of the Flame

Author: James R. Sanford

Series: Knights of the Flaming Blade #1

Kyric is on his way to the games to compete in the archery tournament when he stumbles across Aiyan. Aiyan is a mystery—possibly insane, but one whose outlandish claims have an uncomfortable ring of truth about them. Are the men hunting Aiyan as dangerous as he says? And now that Kyric is involved, distancing himself again may not prove easy or wise . . .

This was really good. Kyric isn’t particularly interested in a lot of the greater mystery, but Aiyan’s high-stakes crime has attracted a large reprisal, and after a while Kyric realizes he can’t afford to distance himself. Although Kyric does have some interesting dreams, most of what he can do is far more ordinary. And what they are up against is anything but.

The setup with dragons and firebirds was interesting. I also like the weird, and the way it goes farther than a simple definition of magic. Kyric’s dreams are also an interesting wrinkle. It’s one of the things that makes him just a little extraordinary already, although since he doesn’t really like to think about them, it takes a while for him to pay attention.

I wish the ending had been a bit more definitive about what Kyric is going to do next. He doesn’t have to have a detailed plan, but I wasn’t entirely clear what his intentions are after the initial attempt.

Overall, though, this was a solid read and I’ve already got the sequel on my pile. I rate this book Recommended.

The Boy and the Beast (Anime)

Title: The Boy and the Beast

Format: Movie

A boy, cast adrift by the death of his mother, runs away, and in the process finds himself in a parallel world populated only by beasts. His humanity is an issue here, but a giant bear-man named Kumatetsu tries to claim him as an apprentice, and gives him the name Kyuta. Unfortunately Kumatetsu is a laughingstock among his own kind. He’s big and strong and skilled, but also lazy and quick-tempered and full of rough edges. Can Kumatetsu prove he’s able to train an apprentice? Can Kyuta survive Kumatetsu’s horrible attempts at training?

I found this because I stumbled across the novel (on clearance, yay) and got curious about seeing the movie because of it. I streamed this on Funimation’s site, so I watched it in dub.

The movie was excellent. Ren (though he doesn’t introduce himself until halfway through the film), nee Kyuta, is a child angry at the world when his mother dies unexpectedly. He hates his relatives and would rather go live with his father, but because his parents divorced, no one wants to give him to his dad. So he runs. He’s argumentative from the get-go, which makes him a really fun companion for Kumatetsu. He doesn’t put up with Kumatetsu’s flaws, but rather calls them out. My favorite example of this is during a fight when he’s asked to encourage his teacher, and the “encouragement” sounds more like, “Hey, you look stupid lying there. Get up, loser.”

But then, that’s the kind of relationship between the two.

Kumatetsu is stubborn about being a master, and being terrible at it only seems to fuel his determination that he won’t fail at something like THIS. Although the story beats may feel familiar, they’re handled so well. Kyuta ends up becoming the master in many ways, and Kumatetsu has to learn to be an apprentice, but there are still many things that Kyuta doesn’t know and needs to learn from Kumatetsu. If, that is, Kumatetsu can adequately explain them. Which is a problem because Kumatetsu never had to learn from anyone, and sucks at explaining even the simplest things.

I really liked the twist halfway through, too. Ren has grown up more or less happily in the world of the beasts, but when he finds his way back to the human world as accidentally as he originally left, he’s now confronted with what it means to be part of both worlds. Which will he choose? Which family should he prioritize—the bear-man who has raised him these past several years, or his biological father? And does it even have to be a choice forsaking one for the other?

This is about family, about different people who gradually become family (despite themselves, really), about the bonds that still hold despite having been estranged. And it’s about the darker side, too—how having a loving family doesn’t prevent problems, or loneliness, or doubts that can overwhelm.

And there’s still a lot of good fights to be had, since Kumatetsu is, after all, in competition for the position of lord of the beasts, and training Kyuta in his skills.

I didn’t get a chance to check out the Japanese, but the English voice actors all brought their A-game. I very much enjoyed the dub. Everyone was cast appropriately, and I especially appreciate that the kids sounded so good. Kyuta spends about half the movie as a nine-year-old, and the other half close to an adult, and his voice reflects that. It still sounds like him, but more mature, and the same was true of the friends he made. That’s a difficult transition to pull off well.

Overall this is absolutely something I will watch again, and try to show to the friends and family who don’t generally watch anime. I rate this Highly Recommended.

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim (The Story of Owen #1)

Title:  The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim

Author:  E. K. Johnston

Series: The Story of Owen #1

Owen Thorskard comes from a family of dragonslayers—the most famous dragonslayer in Canada is his aunt Lottie. After Lottie is injured, she moves with her family to the small town of Trondheim, Canada, to live out her semi-retirement with Owen and his father Aodhan protecting the town and the small towns around it. But the dragon activity is increasing, and without resources from the government, it may fall upon Owen and his friend and bard Siobhan to defend what they love. . .

This book was kind of interesting for having relatively decent prose but terrible worldbuilding and plotting. I’ve never read a story so full of gaping logic errors.

I liked that Siobhan and Owen were able to build a friendship that didn’t turn into a romance. I liked that Owen was a serious and dedicated young man who actually did have a vocation in his family’s dragon slaying legacy, and wasn’t following the typical “rebel against what is supposed to be my destiny” plotline that basically everything uses.

Unfortunately, that’s about all I actually liked.

It’s like the author couldn’t figure out what to do with Sadie and Emily, and so although they’re both kind of important, whenever one is there the other drops out of the story completely. It might have been better to make them both the same character and worked it in that way, or at least keep them both relevant once they’re introduced.

The dragons in modern day life story failed SO HARD for me. As much as I find the central conceit amusing, the worldbuilding is terrible. Everyone has cars and other modern machinery, so presumably they also have guns. Why would anyone fight dragons close-range when there ought to be something that can be fired to, at minimum, shred their wings to ground them, then turn them into mincemeat? Also it’s puzzling why gas cars are still so prominent when they attract dragons. Presumably that would be the sort of pressure that encourages adoption of electric cars even if their efficiency sucks, and electric trains to get from city to city. In other words, you can’t just throw something that major into modern life, say it’s been there all along, and assume modern life STILL LOOKS THE SAME.

Electric vehicles would likely be mandatory, and gas engines would have been abandoned for personal vehicles (and probably heavily taxed to dis-incentivize them) even if electric was only a fraction as efficient, because not dying kind of outweighs other considerations. And car designs would prioritize running on batteries even if every “car” had to look like a pickup with a back bed full of batteries to power it. And most people wouldn’t have personal vehicles unless they were bicycles because a car is an expensive thing to build and replacing it as often as it sounds would drive insurance costs through the roof, even if the small towns would only lose a dozen and not hundreds of vehicles a year.

The story makes a lame attempt to explain why no guns, but it also mentions crossbows just a few sentences earlier, so I don’t think that argument holds any merit. Honestly, I’m still stuck on why, if dragons are so easy to lure, they’re such a problem. So what if they explode when struck by missiles and other dragons come to check it out? So what if they bleed oil? That seems like the perfect opportunity to set up a purge: start a bonfire, lure dragons, explode until they stop coming. Also bullets are not missiles, and even missiles still sound good to me, provided you prepare the killing grounds appropriately ahead of time. And actually, the characters come to almost the same conclusion, which makes everyone, absolutely EVERYONE, look like a moron, because if a 16-year-old can figure this out, adults should have noticed a few centuries earlier. And hey, if dragons bleed oil, that sounds like a local source of fuel to me, as well as a great reason to put bounties on them until they go extinct.

And dragonslayers only being a family business? When people die and properties are getting destroyed? I just can’t buy it. Even if some people aren’t physically or mentally capable of combat, there’s no way small town farmers left without an officially licensed slayer wouldn’t resort to an “I’ll fix it myself” mentality. I asked a friend of mine who grew up on a farm, and her reaction to the story’s “wait for slayers to arrive” solution was to laugh as hard as I was. When something threatened their cows, her dad picked up the shotgun. There’s a scene in the middle with a barn on fire, ponies in the barn, and the dragon eating the ponies. The family is just standing there watching.

And it’s not even farmers. Anyone who’s lost a family member to a dragon would be a good candidate for “I’ll take those dragons out myself, license or no license.” The fact that there’s supposedly such a shortage, and NO ONE IS STEPPING UP, boggles my mind. We’re not talking about brain surgery. We’re talking about killing things.

How I see this actually playing out is more like this. Small town, no “official slayer”, so the farmers get together as often as they need to, set a giant bonfire as bait. Wait with loaded weapons (multiple per person) and plenty of ammo. When dragons fly in, they get shot until dead. Shoot until out of targets. Dispose of corpses. Since this is a stakeout and not a hunt, we can use really big guns in addition to smaller arms. Lots of options.

Also, if your town is getting razed because dragon slayers take 2.5 hours to arrive, people are going to be poor. They won’t have luxuries, because they’ll be constantly spending to replace the basics. Actually, they’d probably just build underground. At that point it would be more cost effective since underground homes wouldn’t attract as much interest from a dragon.

So…. this really ends up reading like someone’s personal gripes against carbon emissions instead of an attempt to build a realistic world.

The book has way more that reads like a liberal checklist:
– Capitalism is demonized (regulation/government is offered as the solution. Ironically, this is despite the fact that the government is clearly shown to be unwilling or unable to help the small towns. But don’t worry, I’m sure MORE government will fix that.)
– Carbon emissions are evil and dragons will kill you for polluting
– The Oil Watch is de facto evil because they’re conscripting all the dragon slayers for a mandatory term of service. Evil oil, yawn.
– Token homosexual character to point out that people are evil for not embracing homosexuality
– Nationalism evil, globalism good (hey, instead of getting mad that people from the first world aren’t going to the third world to defend them from dragons, how about training them up to defend themselves? They are equally capable, you know).
– The plan to provide a dragon slayer for every small town, supported by that town, is called socialism, and Conservatives are specifically called out for promising to do the same and failing to follow through. (To me this sounds WAY closer to how a church functions, with members supporting a pastor through donations. Or in other words, it’s another form of employment. If it’s not voluntary on the who-goes-where OR the donations, which would really just be taxes, THEN we can call it socialism and I would agree.) In other words, another pointless “yay socialism” moment. Actual socialism would be closer to what the Oil Watch is doing, except the towns and not the company would be paying for it.
– The shot that started all the trouble for Aodhan was fired by the Republican Guard strike team (there are no Republicans mentioned elsewhere in the story, and this is taking place in the Middle East, so I don’t see why they’re named like this except as yet another dig at Republicans. And this from a story that takes place in Canada). Also, the strike team, which was killed by Iraqis, has their deaths described as a “small solace” instead of the tragedy that the other deaths were. It’s also indirectly a dig against using guns, since Aodhan just KNOWS the gun is a bad idea but can’t get there in time to stop them.

So the book as a whole fails for me, really hard. The plot only works if you imagine everyone to be extremely stupid and willing to get slaughtered because they won’t defend themselves, and that the method of luring off some dragons to attack the hatching grounds wasn’t thought of by anyone who’s come before. Or hey, why not spoil the hatching grounds ahead of time by lacing the soil with something that will stop eggs from developing, or plant mines so that when dragons land to lay eggs they explode instead? Argh, there’s SO MANY WAYS I can think of that would have improved this. Needless to say, Not Recommended.

Awakening (Chronicles of Benjamin Dragon #1)

Title: Awakening

Author:  C. G. Cooper

Series: Chronicles of Benjamin Dragon #1

Benjamin Dragon has a lot going on in his life. He’s been moved up two grades, which makes him the youngest, smallest person in his classes, his family moves all the time, so he has a hard time making friends, and now weird things are happening around him. He doesn’t know why or how they’re happening. But it’s going to change everything . . .

This is aimed a bit younger than I usually read, but it’s still a solid book. I liked how Benjamin has a hard time figuring out people, so he uses his powers of observation to try to get a handle on their body language instead. I liked his quiet suspicion of things that seem too good to be true, and how he doesn’t just go along with everything. He knows when something’s up, even if he hasn’t quite figured out what it is or how he wants to respond to it.

I’m less fond of the way the power is split up. Three areas, and one of those is “everything else”? That just feels way too sloppy. And of course the “everything else” bucket has a name like destructors—and here I was expecting it to be a disintegrating-matter type of ability, but in reality it’s more just telekinesis. (For a good example of psychic powers split into 3 major buckets with various wrinkles depending on how you use them, see the manga series Psyren.)

Also the power is basically “free” as far as I can tell. (At least in Psyren there’s a non-trivial risk of turning yourself into a vegetable or killing yourself if you overuse your abilities.) Benjamin struggles to use his power partially because he can’t tell any difference when he IS using it. There’s no upper bound visible to what he can do other than possibly keeping track of everything. This makes the final battle almost anticlimactic, as I can’t really see much risk in the actual power display, and the social pressures feel more daunting.

Despite that, I did enjoy the book, and am interested in reading farther. I rate this book Recommended.